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Democratising the gallery space

2nd Aug 2019

Fabrica in Brighton is presenting the innovative exhibition Putting Ourselves in the Picture until 26 August. We spoke with Director Liz Whitehead about the two questions at the heart of the exhibition: ‘who gets to create art?’ and ‘whose work is selected and therefore validated for public view?’.

Fabrica has been developing work with people with complex needs since 2015, when Project Art Works (PAW) first ran creative workshops at the gallery with participants with complex needs, their carers and Fabrica’s staff and volunteers. This sparked a commitment between Liz and Kate Adams, Director of PAW, to jointly fundraise for a co-commission. In 2017, In Colour an interactive light installation was exhibited at Fabrica. Artist Peter Hudson worked with artists with complex needs during the research phase, which informed the nature of the artwork’s interactivity and accessibility, and the wider engagement programme.

These projects proved to be a crucial learning opportunity for Fabrica. Their staff and volunteers have as a result have developed their awareness and are more attentive and responsive to the needs of neurodiverse people as both creative participants and visitors. Building on the learning from In Colour, Fabrica now presents Putting Ourselves in the Picture, also co-commissioned with PAW as part of the EXPLORERS project. Liz sees these two projects as fundamental to a period of organisational change, enabling strong partnerships to be built and the whole team to be better supported to work with visitors with a range of capacities.

The ambition for the current exhibition is to be fully inclusive, creating a space where people with and without complex needs can be creative, whether working collectively or individually, with support from the lead artist or under their own steam. Artists Sara Dare, Annis Joslin and Jo Offer were each invited to undertake short ‘workshop-focused’ residencies of two to three weeks each. These artists were selected because creative collaboration is a significant aspect of their practice. Sara Dare has worked with PAW for over a decade and led staff training sessions at Fabrica in 2017; Annis Joslin had undertaken a Making Space project at Fabrica earlier this year, during which Liz had many conversations with her about collaborative working, so invited her to present a proposal for Putting…; and Jo Offer best known for her work with Rocket Artists and as Lead on the MA in Inclusive Practice at the University of Brighton.

As the format of Putting… is open, and is essentially a workshop as an exhibition, the key criteria for the artists is that they need to be able to create and manage an environment which enables people to be authentically included, to be confident about demanding what needs to be put in place to make this happen, and also to be able to engage in meaningful discourse around this method of working. You can see more about the ideas and ambitions of the curators and artists in this video:

The exhibition also provides a focus for collaboration between artists, curators and arts organisations whose working practices reflect a human rights based approach to creative expression. One of these is Outside In (OI), who also share an office space with Fabrica. Director Marc Steene and Exhibitions Coordinator Cornelia Marland will be curating one of the four exhibitions (7-18 August). Liz feels fortunate that PAW and OI are both based in Sussex, allowing her team easy access to their expertise and the opportunity to engage in dialogue around their innovative practice.

Through this exhibition the team are learning about the resourcing required to support people with complex needs. Each morning groups of people with complex needs come into the gallery for a private session with the artist before the gallery is opened for the public at 1pm. These individuals will have a range of requirements and if there are several individuals with high support needs then a number of staff and volunteers are on hand to support the artists leading the session. At the end of the project Liz will reflect with the team on the staffing that was required to deliver this project, how the resources could be better employed in future projects of a similar nature, and what the real costs are to achieving an authentically inclusive experience.

This project also engages other local groups that Fabrica is developing relationships with and that are least represented in the contemporary arts, such as older people. For over ten years Fabrica has been providing arts activity for older people and much of this has been delivered through a long standing partnership with Brighton & Hove City Council’s Seniors Housing. BHCC Seniors Housing provide housing at 20 sites across the city, and more recently opened a care home for residents with dementia. This activity happens year round but when it’s appropriate to the conceptual framework of an exhibition in the gallery space, as with Putting… then there is the opportunity to integrate an event or activity for the specialist audiences they work with such as hosting training sessions for the carers of dementia sufferers.

In the first couple of weeks of the exhibition there has been a good response from participants and visitors, with the weekends being particularly lively. There is a good atmosphere in the space, and people tend to stay for a long while deeply engaged in making work, but also collaborating and socialising with others. Liz has been pleasantly surprised at how collaborative the work has been, as this is so different to the way art is usually produced by a single artist. Visitors have the opportunity to decide to put forward their work to be considered for exhibition or to take it home with them. Those that have left their work have on the whole not been concerned with being named in its exhibition.

With the ambition to stage four exhibitions as part of the project, it requires a quick turnaround between each show, so the decision was made to bring in a small number of professional curators, who take a broad view of what constitutes art, to select the artworks. Their choices and criteria for their selections are displayed alongside the workshop studio element of the exhibition. The selection process for each exhibition is also being live streamed on the gallery’s Facebook page.

The aim is to show the subjective nature of curation, without taking away from the skill or knowledge of curators, and how their selections are informed by their interests, backgrounds, and specialisms. Kate Adams started the process in July selecting a number of works made by PAW artists that showed a diversity of approaches and were connected to lead artist Sara Dare. In curator Lisa Slominski’s selection the collaborative nature of the mark making, where 50 to 100 people may have worked on a single work, has been central to her choices. Look out for Marc and Cornelia’s selection on 5/6 August, and for Liz’s selection on 19 August. Liz has not yet decided on what her criteria for exhibition will be but imagines that based on her curatorial sensibilities it will focus on the relationship between the work and Fabrica’s building in some way.

Putting Ourselves in the Picture runs until 26 August at Fabrica in Brighton.

Image: Putting Ourselves in the Picture, photo: Sara Dare.

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